Last month, as Colombo was filled with bright lights and happy faces celebrating Vesak, a group of Pomeranian puppies huddled together in darkness inside a pet shop on Galle Road, Mt Lavinia. According to the Animal Welfare and Protection Association (AWPA), the shop had remained closed for days because of Vesak Poya, with sparrows, parrots, hens, [...]


How much is that doggie in the window? The one that is lying there, dead


Last month, as Colombo was filled with bright lights and happy faces celebrating Vesak, a group of Pomeranian puppies huddled together in darkness inside a pet shop on Galle Road, Mt Lavinia. According to the Animal Welfare and Protection Association (AWPA), the shop had remained closed for days because of Vesak Poya, with sparrows, parrots, hens, rabbits and puppies among other creatures left inside.

And during that time, something went wrong.  “The Monday after Vesak, I saw one dead Pomeranian in the dustbin and a quail that was half eaten by the other quails,” a member of AWPA said (name withheld on request). “There were two other dogs in the cage. The person in charge was laughing and discussing the smell as he opened and cleaned the shop after the shop had been shut for three days. He did mention that he had come in to feed them.”

Pic by Indika Handuwala

The puppy is believed to have died as a result of unhygienic conditions, a lack of food and the stress of being caged. The mother of the pet shop owner says these allegations are levelled by enemies intent on bringing down the business.  “For Vesak, my son went abroad and one of the caretakers fell ill with a fever,” she said. “But he still came in to feed the animals. No animals died when we were closed for Vesak.”

She added that the police had come in and questioned the caretakers over the allegations. A social networking site post criticising conditions in the pet shop has sparked a new row, with a company sponsoring the shop signboard taking down the sign to avoid negative publicity. A person who did not wish to be identified said the shop owners had issued threats and demanded that the sign be restored.

“The caller threatened to hit and harass me if I didn’t get the sign back to him,” the person said.  When The Sunday Times visited the pet shop about a week after Vesak Poya day, there were two Pomeranian puppies left inside a cage. Many of the cages were empty. There was a stench in the shop. One of the two caretakers had a handkerchief wrapped around his mouth.

“He had a cold,” the shop owner’s mother said. “That’s why he has covered his mouth.”  The animals are left in the cages overnight with sufficient food, according to the caretakers. The shop opens at about 10am each day and closes at 7.30 pm, after which the animals are left in darkness with each other for company.

The caretakers said that although business is slow, these dogs are popular and do not stay in the shop for more than a week.
Once the pups are sold, the “stock” is replenished with newly-bred puppies. There are about 10 puppies in each new lot, and they are put on display in metal cages. A Pomeranian pup sells for about Rs. 10,000.

The AWPA said it receives reports from across the country of caged animals dying in pet shops. “When they open the shop, they do not allow people in until they clean and remove the dead animals,” an AWPA member said of the Mount Lavinia outlet. “This is common in almost all pet shops.”

This allegation does not appear to be supported by the chief veterinary surgeon at the Colombo Municipal Council, Dr. I.V.P Dharmawardane, who said the council had not received complaints of animals dying in pet shops in Colombo this year. He said complaints tend to be about the stench in these shops.

Sagarica Rajakarunanayake, the founder of Sathva Mithra, a national animal rights organisation, condemned the conditions in pet shops.

“Puppies are kept crowded in tiny cages,” she said. “It is not known what nourishment they get and whether they are provided with clean water. Furthermore, puppies are kept in the front area of the shops, often in the hot sun, so that people can see them better.”
Dr. Firdosi Mehta, World Health Organisation representative in Sri Lanka, said pet shop owners have a responsibility to keep shop premises clean.

“Owners of pet shops should have civic sense and social responsibility to keep their shop environment clean, for the sake of both the pets’ health and the health of caretakers and customers,” he said. An official from the Department of Animal Production and Health said pet shops were currently not regulated under any laws but amendments to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907 were being prepared that could bring needed reforms.

This ordinance is a three-page document with 14 sections. The ordinance discusses persons who “cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, over-ride, abuse or torture… [and] by any act or omission cause unnecessary pain or suffering to any animal.”

The statute has come under criticism over the years for its limited definition of an animal (defined as “any domestic or captured animal and includes any bird, fish, or reptile in captivity”) its low maximum monetary penalty of Rs. 100, and the amount of power the police are given to pursue offenders.

The Animal Diseases Act – which discusses the control of animal products and veterinary biological products, among others – is another relevant document but the departmental official (who spoke to this paper on condition of anonymity) pointed out that there had been dispute about the interpretation of the term “animal houses”, which currently refers to animal labs and not pet shops.
Ms Rajakarunanayake said animal welfare groups had on several occasions drafted new animal welfare laws and presented them to the government.

“Animal rights organisations have asked for strict control over pet shops to prevent cruelty and ensure humane treatment of animals,” she said. “We have proposed new laws that should be introduced without delay but authorities are turning a deaf ear.” She said people should nevertheless take initiative and report pet shops that mistreat animals.

“Following several complaints by people to the Colombo Municipal Council about a pet shop in Kirulapone, the chief veterinary surgeon inspected the place and found the shop was not registered and also that animals are kept in unsatisfactory conditions,” she said.

“The surgeon is taking necessary action and will be inspecting other pet shops in Colombo as well. The public must visit these pet shops and lodge complaints with the police and the municipalities of the area.” Currently, pet shop owners require clearance from local authorities before setting up shop.

Dr. Dharmawardane said pet shops that rear dogs must meet certain requirements of space, food and waste disposal. Pet shops that were not registered or did not adhere to these requirements could be closed down.

Ms Rajakarunanayake said the sale of animals and birds for pets “has become a cruelly exploitative business without strict laws to control it”.

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